Types of Fibers

The leaf fibers such as abaca (a variety of banana plant), and ramie and hemp, bast or stem fibers, were probably used very early on in twining as well as in the first weaving. The Philippines is noted for its use of these fibers in combination with cotton or silk as warp or weft threads. Abaca and hemp are the main fibers for clothing of Mindanao cultural groups. A leaf fiber that developed quite late in the Philippines is piña or pineapple fiber. It is unusual in that it is knotted rather than twisted to make thread. Probably more widespread throughout the Philippines and Indonesia, it is now produced solely in Aklan province.

Cotton, however, is the main material used in the production of textiles throughout insular Southeast Asia. It is used in combination with leaf or bast fibers as well as with silk. Cotton plants are easily processed for home consumption, thus making this fiber the egalitarian material. Most village people can produce enough cotton to serve their own cloth-making needs. Thus, the skill in weaving technique rather than the high cost of the materials determines the status of the weaver and wearer. Most mountain groups still produce most cloth from cotton, although now they generally purchase the thread rather than produce it themselves.

Silk, a late arrival, probably from China, became a popular cloth for the wealthy. The ability of silk thread to absorb dyes, producing vibrant colors, was one of its main attractions. As silk production developed in insular Southeast Asia, its use became more widespread. To cut costs and for ease in weaving, silk is mixed with cotton or other plant fibers. The Philippines in particular create a fabric, sinamay, that combines piña or a hemp warp with a silk or fine abaca weft for a type of men's shirt, the barong Tagolog.

Piña, like silk, is time consuming to process and was used in special garments for the wealthy. Piña fiber clothing imitated the Spanish-style dress. Wealthy Spanish, mestizos, and Philippine women wore blouses (camisa) and kerchiefs (pañuelos) over Spanish-style collars with long voluminous silk skirts; the men wore long-sleeved shirts over trousers. Piña fiber clothing and cloths were heavily embroidered with patterns borrowed from Spanish motifs—flowers, vine, or religious symbols—along with some native plants. Its popularity went beyond the Philippines. Finely embroidered handkerchiefs and collars were imported to Spain and the United States in the late nineteenth century. Many fine examples of pieces of clothing exist in collections but only a few sacred cloths used as vestments or altar cloths exist.

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